Through the Coach’s Alphabet I examine values one letter at a time.  For this installment we look at RECOGNITION, a value that people are often hesitant to admit is important, fearing it signifies narcissism. Yet according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, after our physical safety and survival, feeling important, included and appreciated drive our motivation.

The word recognition has two common meanings, one is to be acknowledged for something, as when you are celebrated at work for your contribution or receive an award for a specific achievement.  With this type of recognition comes a sense of validation and approval from an external source.  We also use the word recognition when we become reacquainted with something that was previously known.  To become re-cognizant, is to be reminded of a person, an experience, a piece of knowledge, or an aspect of ourselves that has been suppressed from conscious awareness.

When I worked as an outplacement consultant I helped hundreds of people who had recently been laid-off find their next job.  We started by making two lists to identify the elements that would make up their “ideal” opportunity.  One list consisted of the more tangible or extrinsic qualities such as the position, salary, benefits package, advancement opportunities, location and size and reputation of the company.  The second list contained the intrinsic or more personal payoffs that would make them feel good about the work and themselves.  I was surprised that most people put ‘feedback’ at the top of their second list…and not just in terms of getting recognition for a job well-done.  Although people said it was nice to receive compliments, most people craved the constructive feedback that made them feel that their supervisor and the organization as a whole recognized and was invested in their ability to grow and to offer increasing value.

When we lose sight of our talents, strengths and ability to meet new challenges we tend to feel so burnt out and run down that all of our energy is used to maintain status quo.  When this happens we are more likely to suppress those talents and strengths and lose our motivation to meet new challenges and thus the cycle perpetuates.

Everyone makes mistakes, has lapses of judgment and experiences failure.  Although it can be embarrassing to be “called out” at such times, it can feel even worse not to have anyone notice or care.  If you are lucky, you have people in your personal and professional lives who have the compassion, strength and skill to “call you forward” or to offer what Marshall Goldsmith of the ‘Leader to Leader Institute’ calls feedforward.  They will not only say, “I expect better of you,” but will stick around to help you learn from the past and create positive change in the future, something I get to do everyday as a coach.

My favorite scene from any book or movie is in Jane Austen’s Emma.  After teasing another woman in public, the title character is privately confronted by Mr. Knightly, “It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.–This is not pleasant to you, Emma–and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,–I will tell you truths while I can.”

Oh, how I long to have someone in my life who would be willing to take on the difficult role of telling me the truths that I need to hear to become the person I am meant to be.  Of course, as I am writing this I am having a hard time picturing myself responding with grace and gratitude in such a situation rather than with an obscene tirade or hand gesture…but literature isn’t necessarily meant to be taken literally, like a good friend or mentor it teaches us the lessons that need to be learned in a way that we are able to embrace them.  (As an aside, I did have a supervisor who pointed out a deterioration in the quality and enthusiasm of my performance…it was one of the most difficult yet most beneficial conversations of my life.  I shaped up, was there for another six-months doing good work before heading back to grad. school and today, I still consider her a friend.)

I agree with my clients as well as management experts Frank M. J. LaFasto and Carl Larson (2001) who connect good feedback with enhanced performance, increased satisfaction and a heightened sense of personal accountability.  Unfortunately, giving and hearing constructive feedback are two of the most difficult skills to teach and even more difficult to learn.  One place to start is to re-cognize the best aspects of your current self and your ambitions for your future self.  The next step is to be grateful for the people in your life who will help you bridge the gap.  If you happen to be motivated to meet a new challenge now, reach out to those people to let them know how much you value their contribution.  That way you give them permission to continue to see who you are and who you are becoming, and at the same time you help them feel re-cognized!

Reflection questions on Recognition:

(1) What have you been recognized for?

(2) What do you long to be recognized for?

(3) How do you express recognition of others?

(4) What are you reluctant to recognize about yourself and/or your life?

(5) Design a ‘Day of Recognition’ for yourself.  What’s on the agenda?

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